Who gets to learn in Berkeley, and how, when COVID-19 has closed all schools?

The Sylvia Mendez Elementary schoolyard is empty as Berkeley kids shelter in place. Photo: Pete Rosos

Every morning in Berkeley, a video conference call platform designed for white-collar workers is taken over by a group of antsy 6-year-olds.

Welcome to the Zoom version of Alicia Traister’s kindergarten class.

As a recent session got underway, the teacher was all alone in the virtual meeting room, scribbling a welcome message on the digital white board. Then one of her young students materialized, clutching a stuffed animal. Soon after, a box appeared next to the girl, displaying a boy whose tiny face was all but engulfed by a pair of headphones. Their classmates continued to pop up one by one, some sitting next to parents and others sprawled out on couches.

For the next 40 minutes, Traister walked her young students through learning exercises — Do you notice any spelling errors on the white board? Can you share what you’re planning to do today? — and read them a picture book, turning it around to face the camera.


When the kids started to chatter excitedly, Traister let them in on her “special power”: “I can mute you.”

The short class was not seamless. The teacher was also on mute at the beginning without realizing it, kids inevitably talked over each other, and at one point the entire white board got “erased.” But parents, who’ve been ordered to stay at home with their kids to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, were clearly grateful for the activity.

“You’re giving us some structure and we really need it,” one mother told Traister. “Thank you.”

Traister (Berkeleyside is using a pseudonym by request) has been offering the daily lessons completely voluntarily. After COVID-19 forced schools to close for at least three weeks, starting March 16, Berkeley Unified Superintendent Brent Stephens said the district was unable to come up with a “distance learning” program that could equitably serve all students — those with disabilities, those without computers and English learners. Under federal law, a school district must provide a “free and appropriate” education to all students or none at all. So BUSD opted instead to post a set of optional “home learning” resources on its website, launched a free meal program, and began distributing Chromebooks to students in need.

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But the decision around academics runs the risk of exacerbating disparities itself. With only some parents able to craft elaborate homeschooling plans, and only some teachers deciding to contact their classes, existing gaps could grow. And, while BUSD was struggling to figure out how to get technology to students, some small private schools in the city were able to launch comprehensive learning plans on day one, creating a larger divide within Berkeley. 

Then last week Gov. Gavin Newsom warned that school closures could easily stretch through the end of the school year. (On Wednesday, seven Bay Area counties extended school closures through May 1.) The state issued new guidance on distance learning, requiring all districts to offer some kind of program, and promising funding for the duration of the closures. BUSD leaders immediately went back to work, and Tuesday night released the general structure of a new plan, which they’ll formally bring to the Berkeley School Board for approval Wednesday evening. (As of publication time, the full plan was not posted on the board agenda.)

This means BUSD and its neighbors are undertaking the monumental task of turning the small society that is a school district into a digital program in a matter of days. 

‘We are in a period of great uncertainty,” said Superintendent Brent Stephens at a special board meeting Thursday. “We’re working hard to try to move a district’s worth of educational experience to an online environment.”

“No one went to school for any of this”: BUSD flips academic program on its head

When BUSD closed its schools, the district thought three weeks without classes — one of which was spring break anyway — might be enough. At that point, teachers were still allowed to move around freely, meeting together to discuss plans. Then came the Bay Area, and eventually statewide, shelter-in-place order, throwing everything for another gigantic loop.

“For the opening two days of the shelter-in-place, we were literally engaged in activities like, ‘Where does the mail get delivered?’” Stephens told the School Board.

The governor’s guidance came shortly after, but didn’t exactly clarify things for school leaders.

“The state has not issued requirements about what distance learning should look like, and has left to local school districts a complicated set of decisions about how best to implement such a program,” Stephens said in an email to Berkeleyside. What ensued was a flurry of surveys, vetting of online curriculum and video calls with groups of principals.

In a message to families Tuesday night, Stephens said a plan implemented after spring break (pending School Board approval) will include weekly assignments from teachers, weekly “learning activities by grade level and course content,” and “student supports,” including for kids in the Spanish-English two-way immersion program.

It’s intended to introduce some uniformity to the random array of practices teachers are now following.

A survey of Berkeley teachers last week revealed that 80% were doing some kind of academic program with their students, whether sending out pre-recorded lectures or recommending specific online resources, according to the Berkeley Federation of Teachers.

But “you can’t really turn a lively, engaging, participatory classroom into an online learning environment overnight,” said Matt Meyer, president of the union.

Traister, for one, was hit hard by the news that schools would be closing.

“I had to walk out of the classroom one time,” she said. “I was just in tears, I felt so sorry for my students.” She was especially worried about those in unstable home situations, for whom her classroom is “a safe haven.”

“I had to walk out of the classroom one time. I was just in tears, I felt so sorry for my students.” — Berkeley kindergarten teacher

A body of research since the 1980s has shown that time off school exacerbates academic gaps between low-income children and their peers. “Summer learning loss” is a product of some kids not having access to enrichment programs over breaks — circumstances likely only enhanced by the stay-at-home order. And young students like Traister’s are at a particularly malleable age.

“We were making a lot of strides with reading and math, and social-emotional learning, which is huge for kindergarten,” Traister said. “We had a groove, and our learning community had established routines. The management was there and everyone knew what to expect.”

She felt she had to keep in touch with students, “letting them know I’m still here, and if we come back in three or four weeks it won’t be weird and awkward.” Even so, only about half her class shows up for the Zoom sessions.

A minority of Traister’s colleagues did not get in touch with their classes, though, and the district did not require teachers to be responsive on email, leaving some parents feeling helpless. Many families have felt frustrated that they had to wait days to even find out whether they’d get a distance learning plan — while district leaders say they’ve worked day and night to scrap one together.

According to Meyer, many teachers are dealing with their own technology issues, and while they’ll get access to their classrooms to pick up materials Wednesday, nobody has the kind of scanner needed to upload whole textbooks. And, the union says, 40% of teachers have their own kids.

“It’s impossible to have a standard work day when you’re running your own childcare,” Meyer said.

The new distance learning plan requires teacher “office hours” and, according to Meyer, includes professional development so staff can get acquainted with online instruction.

“No one went to school for any of this,” he said.

BUSD compiled a set of grade-specific “home learning resources” on its website.

In a bit of irony, BUSD last year denied an application from an online charter school to operate in the district, with officials expressing skepticism about the strength of the academic program. Now the full district will switch to a digitally based program.

BUSD quickly began distributing Chromebooks after schools closed, based on a survey of high school students. By Thursday, 200 people who receive free or reduced-price lunch requested a computer, along with 175 others. Middle and elementary schoolers will get a chance in the coming days.

Then there’s the issue of internet connection. Several providers are offering free service to K-12 students or low-income residents for two or three months during the crisis.

And “there’s no shortage of vendors who are willing to offer products for a month for free,” said Stephens of the overwhelming array of “ed tech” programs districts have at their disposal. But educators are often suspicious of companies trying to get classrooms hooked on their paid services or concerned about privacy implications.

Even the most affluent families often don’t have enough devices for two or three kids and two working parents to use simultaneously at home. Until now many Berkeley parents have intentionally kept provisions sparse and “screen time” a privilege.

“I’m not ready for my 9.5-year-old to have a computer,” said Washington parent Liz Schultz.

Private schools in Berkeley have detailed plans

BUSD’s decision to close its campuses confirmed for the private The Berkeley School that its desire to do the same was valid.

But, unlike BUSD, the 280-student school, serving preschool through 8th grade, had spent all month crafting a comprehensive distance learning plan with clear requirements for staff and based on a survey of families’ technology access. It borrows from other programs and follows guidelines from the California Association of Independent Schools, providing 3.5 hours of learning activities a day for kids in grades 1-8, for example.

Right now, a 7th grade math student at the Central Berkeley school might receive a pre-recorded video or written assignment from a teacher describing a problem they need to solve. The students then use Google Classroom to “chat with other kids in class and collaborate just like they might be doing in person,” said Sima Misra, director of teaching and learning. After 11 days of remote learning, teachers will begin live lessons, where they can share their screens and provide feedback in realtime. And younger kids are enjoying a “morning Zoom” where they sing with their classmates, Misra said.

But there are pitfalls: “For 4th and 5th grade, a lot of those kids not have had access to technology — and suddenly they have this app to chat with each other,” Misra said. The risk of anything from distraction to cyber-bullying is there. Ironically, one of the biggest challenges of moving to a digital school is the low supply of paper. Families are running out of it, without access to the school’s stock and because many don’t own printers.

Mitch Bostian, the head of The Berkeley School, said administrators and teachers themselves “have really been experiencing, directly, the challenge of learning,” while navigating a totally new instructional environment.

“Just like our kids, when we’re learning new things, we have to not take it personally. It means some periods of, ‘We’re not sure, let’s try this.’ Education is always a balance of creativity and constraint — just the constraints have become different,” he said.

The Berkeley School is a “civic engagement school,” meaning students do large-scale, hands-on projects addressing societal issues like homelessness.

“What we’ve been saying to our families is, if you want to be a school that thinks developing life skills and academic skills and civic engagement are all important, there’s no more opportune moment than now to see why that matters,” Bostian said. “It allows us to talk about COVID-19 in our kindergarten classes.”

“It’s night and day, the difference between public and private and being prepared in an emergency.” — Deb Shell, parent

It remains to be seen whether BUSD — a much larger institution with a higher percentage of students with high needs, more legal and bureaucratic restrictions, and likely less money — will reach anything close to the standardization and organization of a place like The Berkeley School.

At this point, “it’s night and day, the difference between public and private and being prepared in an emergency,” said Deb Shell, who has one kid at the private Berkwood Hedge and two at BUSD’s Malcolm X.

“My child who attends 4th grade at Berkwood Hedge meets with her class at 9 to start her day,” Shell said in an email last week. “Then she has packets of work and a check list.  She is engaged and working throughout the day. My other two have very little structure, though I have implemented it on my own.  I am using Duolingo for Spanish lessons, Dreambox for Math and making a check list of things they need to do before they get TV time or iPad.”

East Bay parks like Tilden are packed with families looking for something to occupy kids during school closures. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Nobody knows what to do about special education

No amount of structure or district diligence can override the fact that special education teachers are banned from seeing their students in the Bay Area.

‘This has been single most pressing concern for me and members of the staff — accounting for the particular needs of students with disabilities and English language learners,” said Stephens at the recent board meeting.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is still in effect, meaning districts are still required to provide accommodations to students who need them to learn — whether that’s a full-time classroom aide or tuition to a nonpublic school.

To Meyer, that’s the “inherent contradiction” of the state’s distance learning order.

“All districts are at liability by offering instruction but not having [special education] accommodations in place. But we’re being told to offer instruction,” he said.

And then there’s the practical piece of what an effective remote class could look like for a student with a learning disorder.

‘The idea that a student would be sitting at a computer and receiving a lecture through Zoom is significantly complicated by the fact that many students wouldn’t be able to equally access that lecture without a high degree of support,” Stephens said at the meeting. “Generally this is a totally new area of education, and we are not alone.”

Mikee Gildea said she’s worried about the impact of COVID-19 school closures on her 15-year-old son who’s on the autism spectrum.

“I’m very concerned about him backsliding and missing out on social interactions,” she said in an email. “Plus he’d love nothing more than staying at home watching videos all day every day.”

Gildea’s son attends a specialized nonpublic school instead of his assigned West Contra Costa district site, but their experience reflects that of many BUSD families.

A family walks back from picking up free BUSD lunches at Willard Middle School. Photo: Pete Rosos

Gildea’s school is planning to provide a Skype education plan, but she’s worked out an academic program in the meantime — one that mainly leaves her son’s education up to him.

“One of the biggest things for him is having some control, so he helped come up with the plan,” she said. “This is to help alleviate the major anxiety that can result from unexpected changes. Since this is a major change for an unknown length of time, he will take the lead wherever possible.”

Some BUSD parents say the district has no excuse not to figure out a distance learning plan that works for everyone. In a letter to the School Board, Sonja Mackenzie wrote that BUSD has not only a legal obligation, but a “moral and ethical imperative” to address equity and access issues for the students most affected by the closures as well as their peers: “Jokes are circulating that it’s ‘every child left behind’ in BUSD in the moment…We cannot rely on families’ resources to ensure learning for weeks.”

Working parents are suddenly teachers too

Even parents whose kids skate through school and love learning are floundering.

In the initial days of the closure, a color-coded homeschooling schedule made the rounds among Berkeley parents. There’s a “morning walk,” “academic time” slots for both digital and analog learning, dinner on the dot, and even a daily period when kids help sanitize doorknobs.

One parent quickly sent around a more realistic revised version: four separate Minecraft slots, fighting, and a period from 4-5 p.m. simply labeled “Everything is wet for some reason????”

Kieron Slaughter is one of the ambitious parents who’s following a detailed schedule, written by his wife, for their twin 4th graders. Slaughter’s wife still needs to leave the house for work, so he’s home juggling a full-time job for the city of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development with homeschooling their kids.

At his house, the school day begins, still, with the sound of a bell he found online. Then the Berkeley Arts Magnet 4th graders move through a schedule of academics and exercise, doing math problems, watching Netflix documentaries and walking to pick up lunch from the district. Slaughter gets to incorporate lessons from his own background and skillset (geography, earth science and home economics), and is sure to give the twins some agency (“my daughter made cornbread three times in a row.”) At work, he’s trying to help businesses in Berkeley that are struggling with the loss of revenue — a hard thing to watch for Slaughter, who grew up in the city.

“I’m trying to be available to my kids and balance my emotions, while at the same time trying to meet the needs of the business community,” he said. “On the bright side, I was able to play football catch with my son in the streets for the first time. It reminded me of old-school stuff.”

“I’m having a hard time managing my own stress around what’s happening,” agreed Schultz, the mother of 4th grader Hildy. “I’m not being a very effective teacher.”

Schultz, who’s the Washington PTA president, pulled her daughter out of school before it even closed, worried the child would be “another vector” picking up and spreading the virus. At first, she said, her family and others were mostly just “doing homework” with their kids.

“But then everyone started going bananas, like, ‘I’m going to teach my child gender studies!’ and ‘This is such a great opportunity!,'” Schultz said. Her own husband devised an ornithology-focused lesson plan: “He found some Ted Talks and came up with some questions and writing prompts.”

It’s still a struggle. The 14-year-old laptop she’s lent her daughter doesn’t support all the necessary software programs, and “she doesn’t really particularly like me being her teacher,” Schultz said, laughing.

But she feels grateful that she’s not currently working and is able to support her daughter’s learning.

“The district is doing a really good job of reaching out and trying to support families that get free or reduced-price lunch,” Schultz said. “But then I worry about the kids who choose not to engage, the parents who aren’t pushing them to engage, and the kids who weren’t up to grade level when they got out of school. There will potentially be seven months of no learning — and how is that going to affect where everyone is next year?”

Natalie Orenstein is a reporter at Berkeleyside. Email: natalie@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: nat_orenstein.